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Since mid-March, when most professional and collegiate sports leagues canceled their seasons because of the coronavirus pandemic, sports fans have missed the diversion of cheering for their favorite teams and athletes.
Relief arrived in San Antonio just in time for the Fourth of July weekend with baseball featuring the Texas Collegiate League’s Flying Chanclas de San Antonio. Friday’s home opener at Wolff Stadium marked the return of live sports to the city at any level above youth and high schools.
San Antonio native Edward Shaw, a 70-year-old Air Force retiree, and his son Edmund, 44, could hardly wait to get to the stadium.
“It’s been pretty bad,” Shaw said. “All you can see is reruns, and I wanted to see something live. That’s why we came out because we wanted to see something live.”
All 1,080 fans who attended were required to wear face masks and have their temperature taken to gain entry. Ushers, who also wore face masks, escorted fans to their seats to ensure social distancing and workers consistently disinfected railings and other surfaces during the Flying Chanclas’ 7-4 victory over Acadiana Cane Cutters.
Shaw, who has seen hundreds of minor league games in San Antonio since 1968, said the experience was a bit unusual, but he didn’t feel at risk.
“If we do what they tell us to do, then there should be no problem,” Shaw said.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg have combined forces to lead the area’s response to the pandemic. Wolff, a huge baseball fan whose name is on the stadium, said he believes baseball is the safest team sport to play in the current environment because contact between players is minimal. His concerns prior to Friday were primarily about keeping fans safe.
“I think it’s good as long as the promoter of the sport and all the people are following all of the safety guidelines, separating seats and policing it right,” Wolff said. “Larger events are always the most dangerous of course, but if they handle it right, it should be OK.”
The San Antonio Spurs will resume the 2019-2020 NBA season later this month, but all games in the league will be played at Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida, with no fans in attendance.
Beyond the virus-fighting measures, including a pregame message on the video board from the Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield, the ballpark experience met expectations. The smell of hotdogs and popcorn wafted through the air with the sound of the organ playing between batters. Children chased foul balls and a worker pushed a large cooler filled with ice and beer while yelling, “Cold beer, get your ice cold beer.”
“Obviously, I’ve been in this a long time and our goal has always been to put as many people in the ballpark as we can, and this year that is not our goal,” San Antonio Missions President Burl Yarbrough said. “Our goal is to bring people in here and make them feel safe.”
Season-ticket holders Steve and Linda Shaffer said they felt comfortable attending Friday’s game after the Missions outlined all the precautions and measures in place to make it a safe environment. Steve Shaffer grew up playing pitcher and third base for his Little League team in Jamesville, New York. He said he couldn’t imagine the Fourth of July without the sport.
“It’s like mom’s apple pie and everything else,” Steve Shaffer said. “It wouldn’t be the Fourth without it. That’s what is disappointing with the major leagues and them canceling the minor leagues as well. It’s just not the same without it.”
The Major League Baseball season is set to begin later this month with a shortened schedule and limited travel for teams.
The Missions joined the TCL in late spring when Texas was reopening and coronavirus cases were much lower. The first home game Friday came on a day in which Bexar County officials announced a one-day record of 1,334 new cases.
Yarbrough said the Missions were forced to lay off about one-third of full-time staff this spring when the minor league season was postponed. It was ultimately canceled just last week. Yarbrough said fielding a team in the TCL and hosting 15 home games with possible playoff games in early August will help the franchise avoid further layoffs, at least for now.
“Thankfully, this is helping us keep some of our people employed and we’ve got part-time people who have worked for us for over 20 years,” Yarbrough said. “It was important for us to try to put this together and get some of them back at the ballpark.”
Porter Brown, a sophomore at Texas Christian University, said he is thrilled to have the opportunity to play baseball again after his collegiate season was canceled in March. The former Reagan High School standout said he hit balls each day with his father from March into June until he learned he would be playing for the Chanclas.
He grew up coming to games at Wolff Stadium and even played there several times in high school. He started Friday in left field and went 1-for-2 at the plate with a walk and run scored.
“I don’t have that many worries because our facility and our organization are taking good precautions,” Brown said. “They’re taking care of us and making sure we’re wearing masks and sanitizing our hands and trying our best to stay safe and healthy.”
Ron and Marcy Newman had their annual trip to spring training in Arizona canceled this year because of the pandemic. The Texas Rangers fans came from Southtown on Friday to enjoy the game from box seats behind home plate.
“We’ve missed baseball,” Marcy Newman said. “We were supposed to be [at spring training] in March but it was canceled. But we love baseball. There wasn’t any question we were going to come to a bunch of games.”